Saturday, January 31, 2009

Terrorism, Sacrifice, and Life Everlasting

"Return with your shield or on it."---Thucydides reports that this was every Spartan woman's farewell to her son or husband as he left for war. It means "win or die." The shields were very heavy, and a warrior could not flee the enemy unless he threw down his shield and ran.

Today I read an interesting article posted on a site called Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. The article was titled "Terrorism, Sacrifice and Life Everlasting: Uncommon Insights for President Barack Obama" (1-21-09).

Author Louis Rene Beres of Purdue University writes:

Dealing with terrorism will be at the very top of our new president’s agenda. Here it is important that he understand something odd. The core basis of Jihadist terror has little if anything to do with strategy and tactics. Rather, it is “normally” an expression of religious sacrifice.

The links between sacrifice and politics have a long history.

President Obama should look first to ancient Greece. Plutarch's SAYINGS OF SPARTAIN MOTHERS reveals the female parent as one who rears her sons for civic sacrifice. This mother was always relieved to learn that a son had died "in a manner worthy of his self, his country and his ancestors." Indeed, those Spartan sons who failed to live up to this standard of sacrifice were reviled.

One woman, whose son had been the sole survivor of a disastrous military engagement, killed him with a tile. It was the correct punishment for his apparent cowardice. The eighteenth-century philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, citing to Plutarch, described a certain citizen-mother as follows: "A Spartan woman had five sons in the army and was awaiting news of the battle. A Helot (slave) arrives trembling; she asks him for the news. `Your five sons were killed.' `Base slave, did I ask you that?' The slave responds: `We won the victory.' The mother runs to the temple and gives thanks to the gods."

Why recount these tales from ancient Sparta about sacrifice? What have they to do with current threats of terrorism against the United States? Why should they matter to President Barack Obama?

History speaks volumes. The roots of Jihadist terror originate, in part, from cultures that embrace similar views of sacrifice. In these cultures, however, the true purpose of sacrifice goes far beyond civic necessity. Here, sacrificial practice is a determinably sacred expression of religion. In these cultures, sacrifice derives from a desperately hoped-for conquest of personal death. Above all, with such practice, the Jihadist terrorist hopes to realize an otherwise unattainable promise of immortality.

The Jihadist terrorist insistently claims to “love death,” but this is a lie. Paradoxically, he ecstatically kills himself and innocent others only to ensure that he will live forever. The so-called “death” that he expects to suffer in “suicide” is merely a momentary inconvenience on every martyr’s fiery path to life everlasting.

“Martyrdom” operations have always been associated with Jihad. After all, unequivocal and celebratory invocations for such killing can be found in the Koran (9:111), and, even more explicitly, in the canonical hadith.

For President Obama, the survival implications of this doctrinal fusion of religion and violence warrant very careful study. Convinced that Shahada (“Death for Allah”) violence against the United States will lead to martyrdom, the Islamist terrorist can never be deterred by ordinary threats of reprisal and retaliation. Falling outside the usual boundaries of “rationality,” Jihadist terrorism should compel us to seek very different and more purposeful measures of dissuasion. This means that to keep America safe, President Obama will have to look well beyond orthodox military and political solutions to terrorism.

It still appears to most observers that Jihadist terrorists are unafraid of death. But nothing could be further from the truth. It is precisely their unique and overwhelming terror of death that leads these killers to “suicide.” Ironically, because dying in the act of killing “infidels” and “apostates” is presumed to buy freedom from the penalty of death, these terrorists aim to conquer mortality by “killing themselves.”

...For so many of our terrorist enemies, both individuals and states, killing Americans offers an optimal immunization against death. The death fear of the enemy "ego" is lessened by the killing, the sacrifice, of the infidel. This generic idea has been captured by Ernest Becker's paraphrase of Elias Canetti: "Each organism raises its head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good."

The Jihadist enemies of America do not intend to do evil. Rather, they commit to the killing of Americans and other “infidels” with conviction and purity of heart. Perversely sanctified killers, these enemies will gleefully generate an incessant search for “profane” victims. Though mired in blood, this search will be tranquil and self-assured, born of the presumption that its warrior perpetrators are neither infamous not shameful, but sacrificial and sacred. [See the full text.]


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